One of the world’s most mysterious places, the Ten Thousand Islands is where the Florida peninsula breaks apart into thousands and thousands of tiny pieces. Clusters of mangroves form islands in a shallow estuary constantly fed by a flow of fresh rainfall. For generations, this place has been only accessible by water–by airboat in the shallows, by canoe and kayak and jon boat, and by larger craft through established channels and as the bay deepens.
To open this fascinating area up to exploration by land, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge used a resource that added no additional impact to this sensitive landscape–an oil well road built for, yes, oil exploration–for an out-and-back hike into the mangrove mazes. A bonus for birders: an observation tower provides a perch for photography and viewing.
Location: Everglades City
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 25.974144, -81.554085
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: low to moderate
Bicycles are permitted on the trail. This trailhead is also the launch point for several kayak trails through the refuge, each route specifically marked. Kayakers, be sure to have a map before you head out into the wilds. If you bring your dog, be cautious of alligators sunning along the trail. The entire trail is in the open, with zero shade (unless you duck under the tower).
The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is open dawn to dusk daily.
From I-75 in Naples, take the last exit eastbound (Collier Blvd) before the toll road (Alligator Alley). Head south on Collier Blvd to its junction with US 41. Turn left. Set your trip odometer – the paved parking area along the Tamiami Trail is easy to miss if you don’t realize it’s coming up quick. It’s 11 miles east along US 41, passing the turnoffs for Goodland and Collier-Seminole State Park, before you reach the parking area around MM 31.
Oil wells in the Everglades? Indeed. The Collier family still owns mineral rights under most of the natural lands that sweep across the end of Florida, and yes, they still pump heavy crude oil from two miles below ground in an area called the Sunniland Oil Trend, between Fort Myers and Miami. For details about Florida’s oil production, visit the Collier Resources website.
Abandoned oil exploration pads dot the landscape of the Big Cypress Swamp; more than a hundred well permit applications have been issued since the 1960s. As with the Fire Prairie Trail in Big Cypress Preserve, this road and pad are now put to recreational use.
Begin at the trailhead kiosk. Hopefully the mileage indicated at the kiosk has been corrected (I did get in touch with them about it) from 1.1 miles to the actual 2.4 miles to the oil pad.
Head past the hand-launch kayak ramp and along the boardwalk, which immediately turns right onto a paved path. The scenery quickly opens up, and thereis marsh all around you, punctuated by tree islands with cabbage palms where wood storks perch. Saltbush fluffs into white blooms in fall, attracting monarch and queen butterflies. Be cautious where the water laps close to the trail, where snakes or alligators may be sunning.
Periphyton–that goopy mass of algae, plankton, bacteria, and other biomass that makes up most of the Everglades–floats on water’s surface on the west side of trail. The skunky aroma of Spanish stopper wafts through a small slice of tropical forest that the trail traverses, with gumbo-limbo trees. You may see liguus tree snails crawling up its bark.
Turning the corner, the pavement ends (as of my visit in October 2009, it may have been extended), but the trail continues past the observation tower. Clamber up for a sweeping view of mangroves and a stiff breeze off Florida Bay.
Passing Kayak Trails #2 and #3, the trail continues as a rough limestone road beyond an eye-shaped pond. The right side is resplendent in marsh grasses, while the left side is mangrove islands. Wax myrtle and saltbush give way to mangroves lining the sides of the trail. The road is shadeless but studded with fossils, especially of scallop shells.
As you get a clear view of the mangrove marsh, take a moment to watch the shallows for the movement of fish; the estuary is the nursery of Florida Bay. As the trail curves past a lone gumbo-limbo, to the right you can alligator trails leading in dozens of directions through the marsh. Another view opens up at 0.6 miles, with reedy marsh to the right and mangroves to the left. This balance of differing wetlands continues for much of the hike.
You cross a culvert where water flows swiftly from one side to the other, a place where alligators tend to hang out for easy prey. The water opens up on the right, less matted with periphyton, transitioning towards becoming a part of the mangrove maze.
Where the trail curves at a watery bend, clumps of giant, primordial-looking leather fern grow along the edges. You are now facing to the west–obvious when it’s close to sunset. Ahead is a large clearing–the oil exploration pad, which is being reclaimed by vegetation. There’s an instrumentation station here. It’s not a “wow” ending to the trail, but at least you know where you are.
Since this is an out-and-back hike, turn around and head back the way you came, keeping alert for wildlife in the mangroves–and in the water, and on the berms, and crossing the trail–along the way.